Council watchdog shows its teeth, over ballooning costs of the Knowle move

31 Jan

 Members of EDDC’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) last night gave a resounding vote of no confidence in what a senior Conservative councillor has termed the Council leadership’s “creative accounting”,  over their proposed relocation of the District HQ. The debate preceding the vote had shown Councillors of different political persuasions, and the public, uniting in their call for more precise information about EDDC’s calculations.

A question from Richard Thurlow, Chair of Save our Sidmouth, pointed out that the sum allocated to planning the move was now over £800,000, with £350,000 already spent. There had been no public accountability. “We must be able to see how much has been wasted” he said, particularly on the abortive first  planning application to develop the Knowle site.

Deputy CEO Richard Cohen, who leads the relocation team, resisted the demand for public scrutiny of the finances. There is a difference he said, between “what is of interest to the public, and what is in the public interest”.

Many members of the Committee were not on Mr Cohen’s wavelength. Cllr Roger Giles (Independent) asked how the figures had been arrived at, and referred to what Cllr Peter Halse (Con),  at the last OSC meeting, had termed EDDC’s  “creative accounting” concerning the relocation. In response, Richard Cohen admitted that he had not asked the Head of Finance for  “a full breakdown” of the costs.

Cllr Graham Troman (Conservative) said he was strongly opposed to the decision to devastate the economy of Sidmouth by relocation without clear and published accounts. “We need to know the asset values of the Knowle and Manstone Avenue so we can make an informed decision,” he argued.

Cllr Mike Allen (Conservative) said he had no confidence in the “lemming method of management” which threatened to drive the Council over a financial cliff. “We have come to the point of raiding our assets at Honiton to pay for this move……why are we willing to sacrifice so much?”  (At this point Council Leader Paul Diviani left the room!)

Cllr Allen added that the costs of merely planning the relocation were approaching the estimate of what it would cost to repair the Knowle. “It’s time we took a second look”, he said.

Cllr Claire Wright (Independent) agreed that “finances are getting out of control” at a time of “huge financial hardship.” She added that the Council’s documents used to justify the relocation were “heavy on persuasion, light on (financial) detail”. She said EDDC faced a severe PR problem because the public did not trust consultants’ reports commissioned by the Council which claimed that the modernisation of the Knowle would be prohibitively expensive.She proposed a motion (seconded by Roger Giles) that an independent survey of the Council offices be commissioned to clarify the situation.

Cllr Derek Button (Lib Dem) added his support: “We are racing ahead on a project that may not be necessary……..Now is not the time for a massive spending of public funds.”

Deputy Leader Cllr Andrew Moulding (Conservative) tried to calm fears with the leadership’s mantra that Knowle was “not fit for purpose” – a claim echoed loyally (as usual) by Sidmouth Rural councillor Chris Wale), but no evidence was forthcoming.

Then ,by eight votes to four abstentions, the OSC voted in favour of Claire Wright’s motion for an independent survey of the Knowle offices, with an amendment by Mike Allen that the consultants’ report on the costs of Knowle refurbishment should be “republished”.

Those voting for the proposal were: Mike Allen (Con); Peter Bowden (Con) although he had argued against the proposal!); Derek Button (LibDem); Roger Giles (Ind – seconder); Brenda Taylor (LibDem); Graham Troman (Con); Eileen Wragg (LibDem); Claire Wright (Ind – proposer). Total 8, with 4 abstentions (and probably 2 non-abstention abstainers).

Included in those not supporting the motion were: Conservatives John O`Leary, and, most astonishingly perhaps, two Sidmouth Councillors Frances Newth  and Chris Wale .

The Committee then also unanimously supported a motion proposed by Cllr Tim Wood (Conservative) –whose chairmanship of the meeting was exemplary- that it should receive from the leadership a detailed breakdown of the planning costs surrounding the relocation project.




One Response to “Council watchdog shows its teeth, over ballooning costs of the Knowle move”


  1. Council watchdog toothless | East Devon Alliance - October 17, 2014

    […] followers will remember our report of the O&S Committe resolve made in January this year :… Eight months on, there are signs that the Council watchdog has been undergoing obediency […]

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